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JOHN VARGAS

A Mad Man and a Liar

Movies

Years ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing a film that everyone touted as “genius” and “brilliant.” He and I seemed to be the only ones we knew that saw through the bullshit and noted it for the work of stunning mediocrity it was. As I lamented as to how so many people could love this movie, he uttered, Well, a lot of people like Big Macs.

You deserve better movies.

Truly, I believe that.

The current state of movies are not worthy of your attention. Not worthy of your dime. They are made cynically for the expressed purpose of making more money than any one human could spend in twenty lifetimes. To pay the stars in them that walk blindly through the excessive CGI and mouth words with lukewarm passion “written” by “writers” that have never read anything more challenging than a self help book on how to network themselves into high paying gigs.

They don’t deserve your time.

And yet, you flock. You turn up in days long lines like a starving child in some war ravaged third world country for a morsel of sustenance.

When I was a boy, I remember thinking that indeed, all movies were “kinda” good. And yes, even at a young age, I used the word “indeed,”much to the dismay of my Mexican brethren. (A theme that would follow me my whole life).

I remember watching any movie, and remarking that there was a lot of work involved in making it, therefore, it must garner some respect for all of that work. It wasn’t easy to make up a story and then make it into a movie, I thought. All movies are somewhat entertaining, right?

Well, I was a kid. A stupid stupid kid. I was dead wrong.

My parents tried their hardest to give us those middle class amenities that so many other kids had in the 80s, even if we could never be middle class royalty. We’d relish in these luxuries. At least, temporarily, until they just couldn’t afford them anymore. One of those luxuries was ON TV. No, not something that was on TV. It was a box. A box with a single, round toggle switch. “Off” and ON. Of course “ON” had a slick 80s font. You would turn your TV dial (yes, a dial, ask your parents) to channel 3, you only had 13 choices, half of them were snow (again, ask your parents), and then turn the fake wood paneled box to ON.

Of course, it was only one damn channel. Think of it as cable, if cable was only HBO. That was ON TV.

It was fucking magic. You’d turn it on, and there would be a movie to watch. No commercials. Cusswords and nudity. In our house! Truly it was the greatest achievement in human history. Hey, I was like eleven, okay? The hell did I know about the greatness of humanity’s other endeavors?

Sometimes I’d watch whatever was ON. Could’ve been anything. A Kenny Rogers movie, the fuck did I care? It was a movie, and it was entertaining. Because writers worked on it, actors worked on it. And they were professionals. They wanted to tell me a story. That meant a lot to me.

Then one day, perhaps a week or so before the ON people turned our ON, OFF, I saw a film that changed my childishly ideological stance on movies.

It was a Saturday. Probably. I don’t know, it was a long time ago, I was maybe twelve, my memory is barely serviceable. Back then, there were very little guidelines for what played when, I guess these companies expected parents to police their own damn children, and if they didn’t, fuck it, they’ll get an education of sorts. My parents were always working, so I was to get an education from a rated R gangster film.

Once Upon a Time in America.

Sergio Leone’s sprawling four hour masterpiece of the gangster genre, told in three epochs, with a few slight nods to surrealism.

It was abhorrently violent and sexual. The main character, Noodles, has never known anything but violence, and that violence spilled over into his relations with women. He was a rapist and a monster. And I never cared more about a character in my short life.

This movie looked different than anything I’ve ever seen. The cinematography made me feel as if I was in the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1960s. The music, Ennio Morricone’s haunting, perfect score to complement the actions of the characters, and perfectly missing when it was wholly unnecessary. The acting, from people that seemed to embody the character in which they were charged to convey, no bullshit, only realism. The writing, heavy and compelling, saying only exactly what needed to be said, sometimes, nothing at all, for the visuals would often do that job.

Four hours later, I was a different lad.

I didn’t fully comprehend the movie, I am not pretentious enough to make that boast. But I am pretentious enough to acknowledge that this film is singular in its creation, and nothing of this sort will be made again.

This is where current movies fail us. For, indeed (there’s that word again), these movies can be made and remade and reconstituted into new films. Well, new, in the sense that they are not the films from which they were copied. New actors, bad writing, excellent CGI.

In the 1950s, in France, lived a group of film geeks the likes of which the world has never seen, nor will again. They abhorred their current state of filmdom. Movies that seemed to have no depth, no character. Movies that barely needed directors. But they loved american films. They loved Hitchcock. They worshipped the so-called B movies that were of the film noir genre. A monicker they coined due to the stark cinematography. Most black and white film of the time, strictly speaking were grey, not black and white. Economy makes genius sometimes. The film makers of noir had fewer lights and dealt with the darkness of the human soul, so their work was very black. And bleak.

These French fucks became what is now known as The French New Wave. Movies made with no money. But made with the love of films. Their scant budgets made for works of stunning genius.

They rebelled against the oppressive blandness of that which they loved the most: films. And they made some of the greatest movies of all time.

In the late 1960s, the same started to happen here in america. The studio system was in trouble. They couldn’t get people to come to their movies anymore. Television was usurping their market. Even casting the perennial favorites and super stardom of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in the the same film did little to bring the waves back to the shore that had long since fell calm.

Hopper kicked it all off by making a movie with little money that captured the imagination of a public that was lied to and manipulated. Easy Rider, a film that made its budget, times sixty.

And then a bunch of nerds with asthma and bad skin, whom worshipped Godard and Truffaut, the godfathers of The French New Wave made their mark. That rebelled against the blandness that had infected films on this side of the pond. They became the great auteurs of our times. Scorsese. Copolla. Cassavetes. So many more.

The studios had no choice but to take notice. And throw money at these goddamn kids. Francis wants to make an epic gangster film that he co-wrote with the author of the book in which it was based: The Godfather. Sounds like a terrible idea, the kid barely has any experience! Fuck it, give him a few million. Some asthmatic from New York named Martin wants to make a film about his experiences with a bunch of people he knows in his family. Hooligans and drunks that liken themselves to be gangsters. The script? There’s no plot! It’s just about these characters and their problems. Mean Streets? That’s a stupid title! Give him a few hundred grand to shut him up. He’s got some dopey kid named Deniro to be in it. Whatever, we’ll take the gamble. We’re already against the ropes, we’re gonna lose.

That was the end of the all powerful studio era. Films were now made outside of the studio system, and the public loved it. They went to see the weirdest and deepest films, and they didn’t mind being challenged by films. The studio system was dismantled, and rebuilt, and they made copious amounts of money.

Then, with that money, came their power. With the end of the 70s came the end of the the weirdos and film geeks making movies. The new studios knew better how to make movies. So they thought.

The 80s were born. A bland, sad decade. I know, I lived through it, and have little love for it. It was a decade of films about the self aggrandized with too much muscle or too much money. A time seasoned with blind patriotism on everything. Action movies were king. And most of them were awful. While there were a few exceptions (Once Upon a Time in America released in 1984), it was mostly a sad time for movies. Turns out cocaine isn’t necessarily the most creative of drugs…

The rebellion was brought forth once again at the same time grunge rebelled against the awful hair metal bands of the time. Let’s face it: 80s movie were mostly the hair metal of filmdom.

Another decade of rebellion. Deeper films. Weirder films. Films made by nobodies that would be destined to be somebodies. Sometimes terrible somebodies, but somebodies nonetheless.

Dorks. Geeks. People that knew the history of the art form they had taken on to destroy and rebuild. Nerds that watched movies religiously. Over and over again. Learning from the masters before them.

That’s what they all had in common: Godard, Welles, Scorsese, Lynch; they were all movie nerds. Nothing else came easy to them. Not relationships, not acceptance. Only movies made sense to them.

The 90s. That was my decade. The decade I thought I could be one of those greats. When I spent every hour I could learning from these greats, walking down the path they ripped from the jungle of movie making, a trail barely discernible, so far off the main road, it was impossible to realize it had branched from it at one time.

For my efforts, I fell on my face. I tried and tried and made movies whenever I could, but I could never make them as well as I had hoped. They always fell short, and they always felt amateurish.

But my love never died. It still lives with me today.

Then, slowly, the money came back to pervert the art form once again. To turn the lesser of the indie filmmakers into huge blockbuster directors. The brilliant ones couldn’t be turned, even when they tried, they couldn’t, they would invariably fail.

Two awful genres, seemingly created by investors, appeared to cynically take your money: the remake (or reboot, if you wanna lie to yourself) and the fucking superhero movie.

The remake. The ultimate in lazy drug addled film making. It worked once, it’ll work again! While the lemmings argue about the supposed brilliance of casting an all female cast to remake a film that was all male originally (never mind that the director has a penis), nobody argues the laziness in its inception. Remakes have become so insidious, that they are sometimes marketed as original films. A horror film that lifts from The Shining and The Exorcist, with total abandon and shamelessness. A series that uses every trope imaginable from 80s excess film makers like Spielberg and music from Carpenter. Everyone goes crazy for these films. But I wonder if people love them, not because they’re particularly good, but because they are just so fucking familiar.

Yes. They are original screenplays with original characters. Well, “original” being a relative term, meant to signify a story and character not already used by another film. But the story and character, well, they ain’t exactly Citizen fucking Kane.

Don’t kid yourself: you’re watching a remake.

Which is why perhaps, the cynical controllers of your entertainment have looked towards comic books for new stories. They don’t want to take any chances on anything interesting or challenging, so fuck it, let’s spend hundreds of millions on super hero movies. Movies that some of you have actually hated, and knew you were going to hate! I’ve seen you lament on social media that you knew the next Super-Bat-X-Whatever was gonna suck, but you still fucking went! I can’t even wrap my mind around that level of ignorant trust! Admit it: most of these movies do suck. Because they aren’t made by artists, but by businessmen, who are force feeding you this tripe. Millions of pubescent boys have spent money on these comic books, they are betting that they can make the public regress into their childhood so they can wait hours in line to watch another fantasy fetishizing the hero we wish would save us from the dark world in which we find ourselves.

The movie I loved were about humans. Humans dealing with the harsh brutality of life. From the personal relationships they try make work, to the stalwart courage of a person standing up to injustice. These are the real heroes. Not some rich fuck with daddy issues that imagines himself to be a flying rodent. That rich guy doesn’t exist. But the rich guy who wants to destroy you, he does. And the only ones that can defeat him, are us.

That’s what I’ve learned from movies: that I can, WE can, control our world, our destiny. My heroes were the everyday ones I saw struggle on the screen. Buster Keaton struggles to get a lady to notice him. Cabiria fighting against the whole world so she can make a better life for herself. Kane losing his battle to become everything he hated in his surrogate father. Noodles wants to triumph over his entire worthless life. Malcolm fights a racist country in a dangerous time. Santana struggles to free himself from a world he himself has created.

It always seemed that every decade or so, a bunch of misfits would come out of nowhere to reinvent the wheel that is film making, because in their hearts, they were rebels. Troublemakers. They saw the world differently. Because they were artists. Without the rebellion of the Picassos and Godards of the world, art would stagnate. And if it stagnates, it dies.

So many of these movies today don’t deserve your adulation. The rich and powerful behind them don’t deserve your hard earned money. They will continue this crusade of grey mediocrity until it no longer becomes profitable.

It happened in the 50s.

It happened in the 70s.

It happened in the 90s.

It’s been almost two decades since the last batch of rebels changed film making, and I have yet to see anything resembling any revolution. I see acceptance. The excited acceptance a starving child as he is fed gruel, because he doesn’t know there is so much more sustenance in the world. The creative artist cannot shoulder the burden of revolution alone. He needs the you, us, to expect more. To challenge him. To challenge yourself.

Stop eating Big Macs.

There’s so much more for you out there.

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